Picture yourself in our situation: you’re studying, on the weekends you’re hanging out with your friends and you see your bright future for yourself as an occupational therapist.
Suddenly, everything is changing – there is war. Your life is not like it used to be. In the blink of an eye, all your dreams are shattered. You’re surrounded by death and violence, and you have to leave your country. You’re not able to communicate in your mother tongue, you’ve lost parts of your occupational identity, you’re not allowed to work and, instead, you’re waiting for a positive response to your asylum request.
Life as a refugee can be difficult to imagine, but for almost 22,5 million people around the world, it is a terrifying reality (UNHCR, 2017). Refugees belong to a group in danger of occupational deprivation (Whiteford, 2000). Thus we, as occupational therapists, play a vital role in enabling them to participate successfully. Hence, the occupational therapy department from our university, the Health University of Applied Sciences Tyrol, undertook two projects alongside the Bachelor and Master students focusing on aiding in this transition.
In 2016, the project’s aim was about “building a space and a place for encounter” by furnishing and decorating an “encounter room” together with the refugees living in a refugees’ home in Innsbruck, Austria. Once we got to know each other, we worked in three different groups: sewing, woodworking and gardening. At the project’s conclusion, we celebrated our shared results with lots of traditional food and music. After the project, we reflected upon our experiences and presented them to our professors and fellow students. Furthermore, there was a scientific evaluation of the project, wherein the students, as well as the refugees and the project leaders, were invited to semi-structured (and focus group) interviews.
In 2017, the first focus was on creating a positive experience of encounter between students and the refugees. Our aim was then to identify the resources and competencies of each participating refugee to enable him or her to engaging in meaningful occupations and, in doing so, to contribute to the so- called “Tyrolean compass of competencies” – a project in the Austrian province Tyrol. Within the context of the project, we gathered information regarding the refugees’ interests, resources, and competencies, as well as their occupational roles and accomplishments and summarized them in a document. To finish off the project we also made a presentation in front of the students, the professors, the stakeholders and the participants. This opportunity was also used to hand over these documents to the participants in a formal context.
We, the students, really appreciated the projects. By gaining our first OT working experiences in our first year of studies we strengthened our identities as future OTs. Furthermore, we were able to build a connection between practice and theory (occupational science, OT-models, community-based practice, professional reasoning), and we now have important experience with cultural sensitivity and exchange. We improved our teamwork and organization skills, learned to be flexible, to work with the available resources and to communicate without speaking the same language. Apart from the professional context, we had the opportunity to meet inspiring individuals and even make new friends. Some of us are still in contact with the participants, meeting regularly and arranging dinners together.
Not only were we, as students, able to benefit from the project, but also everyone else involved. We received positive feedback from the people whom we worked with, including social workers and volunteers from the refugee home. We enabled the participants to use their identified resources to find new perspectives and to open up new possibilities. They had the opportunity to take part in meaningful activities and subsequently get out of occupational deprivation, all whilst having the chance to improve their German-language skills and gaining insights into our culture, values, and especially the value of women in our society.
A very gratifying aspect is the sustainability of the project. Beside our newly-gained learning experiences, the project enabled many students to participate in their first fieldwork placements working with refugees. Additionally, there was a publication and dissemination of knowledge (Wetzelsberger, Pasqualoni & Costa, 2017), whilst serving as a good example of practice for the OT community.
In conclusion, we’d like to point out that projects like this not only support students to develop their professional skills, but also help refugees to overcome occupational deprivation. It is our view that there are still a lot more ideas and opportunities for occupational therapists to enable refugees. Although there are a lot of other essential professions in this field, we believe that it is very important to work as an OT in this area because we can add a unique skillset.
We hope we could give you an insight into this field of practice and would like to end with a quote from Helen Claire Smith (2005) in the BJOT, where she wrote that “there is no excuse for allowing our anxieties to halt us from offering the same services that we would do for any other client group“. So: “feel the fear and do it anyway” (Jeffers, 1997 qtd. in Smith, 2005).
Hartmann Victoria, Lukavsky Alexander, Röck Vanessa, Strasser Sophia
Health University of Applied Sciences Tyrol – Occupational Therapy Department
Whiteford, G.E. (2000). Occupational Deprivation: Global Challenge in the New Millennium. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(5), 200 – 204.
UNHCR (2017). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/5943e8a34
Smith, H. C. (2005). ‘Feal the fear and Do it Anyway’: Meeting the Occupational Needs of Refugees and People seeking Asylum. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68(10), 474–476.
Wetzelsberger, B., Pasqualoni, P.P., & Costa, U. (2017). Creating a place and space for encounter: Collaborative action taking within a cooperation of people seeking asylum and project report for the Tyrolean OT association.
Innsbruck: fhg – Health University of Applied Sciences Tyrol.